May 17 2017

A Strange Spring

The driving rain of  winter finally stopped as mild March crept into April. Water drained from the top fields, grass began to grow and that thick red Devon mud gradually became a crisp brown crust.

Lambs arrived thick and fast bouncing out of the stock box on to a fresh green sward. They raced around the top fields in the new spring sun while their mothers grazed quietly regaining their strength.

And then the temperature plummeted. Cold nights held everything in limbo. Grass stood still, buds appeared paralyzed on the stem. The lack of rain threatened drought; dire warnings of summer water rationing filled the airways.

A cold Easter came and went, holiday makers putting on a brave face and many layers to keep warm. Then came the frost! The wisteria on the little bridge across the stream was heavy with buds, more than I have ever seen. Overnight it turned brown and crispy, leaves and buds hanging limply, burnt by the extreme cold. As I walked past the Katsura a strong smell of autumn toffee filled the air, every tip of new growth burnt off by the frost. I wonder still if the little tree will fight back.
Hydrangeas turned brown. The new lime green leaves emerging on the Coreopsis are copper coloured now and all the delicate yellow flowers simply vanished overnight.
Each time we walked to the farmyard we found another casualty. We usually have a mild late frost but never in thirty-five years have I seen one like this in April.
The wind followed, a freezing easterly, blowing the flowers from the Embothrium and turning the lawn scarlet with tiny petals.
Now as May advances the rain has returned, and the whole landscape is swathed in mist. But at least it’s warmer and I may even be able to release the tender plants from their glass-house prison at last! A strange spring indeed.

And here comes Sid again, swaggering down towards the house through the long grass, peering through the kitchen window as he passes on his way for an afternoon snack. He is our new visitor, “phasiamus colchicus” or just a common pheasant.

But how charmingly amusing he is and so dapper! Resplendent in an emerald and scarlet cloak, with tufts of feathers sprouting from his head like tiny horns, he struts down the lawn to the bird feeder everyday followed by his two drab, beige girls. His call rings out through the valley, as he beats his wings ferociously to warn of danger.

Our Labradors both look fixedly the other way pretending he is not there and Onion, our usually laid back cat, scuttles past him anxiously.

I read that some thirty five million pheasants are released on shoots every year. Many are quickly killed by predators and about 16% survive the shooting season.

Only about 10% of our pheasant population is wild. They live on the woodland edge of agricultural land and in shrubby wetlands and are, of course, a well know symbol of our countryside though not originally indigenous to Britain.

They probably originated near the Black Sea and opinion is varied as to when they arrived here. Some say the Romans brought them, or possibly the Normans in the C11th. But they have been here a very long time and have been our main game bird since the 1980’s.
One thing is for sure after meeting Sid I won’t be eating pheasant again for a long while! I will adapt the wonderful Pheasant Normand recipe to chicken, well maybe!!

Normandy Pheasant

This, without doubt, is one of my favourite pheasant recipes and is ideal for oven ready birds which have been commercially prepared. Pheasant like beef is better if it has been properly hung. If it is not it is inclined to be dry and dull when roasted. Apples and Calvados prevent the meat becoming dry and compliment the flavour wonderfully.

Brown a brace of pheasants in melted butter in a heavy frying pan then set aside on a plate. Melt more butter in the pan and fry a kilo of peeled and chopped apples till golden. A sweet apple is best such as Cox or Reinette. Choose a casserole that will snugly take the two birds. Put them breast-side-down on a thick layer of the apple. Pack the remaining apples all around the pheasants. Pour over 125ml of crème fraiche. Cook gently for about an hour at gas 4 or 180c checking after forty minutes or so. After an hour take them from the oven, raise the heat to 8 or 230c and pour over more crème fraiche with 4 tablespoons of Calvados. Return to the oven for five minutes. Leave to rest before serving. As with all meat resting for a while will make it easier to carve.

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